Malaysia has seen divorce rates skyrocketed, with the number of divorces more than doubled from 2004 (14%) to 2012 (26%). At the current rate, there is a marriage breaking down every 10 minutes, on average!
Marriages ending up in divorce may have something to do with the spouses failing to live up to their commitments and obligations.
“Money and sex are the top two factors for marital problems. Finance does come in as a critical area that exacerbates couple conflicts,” Dr. Johnben Loy, the founder and clinical director at Rekindle Centre for Systemic Therapy in Desa Sri Hartamas, says.
When you’re starry-eyed and in love, it’s easy to overlook some of the important topics of discussion. But the truth is, if you really love this person, you’ll be willing to put in some hard work on the front end to create a game plan for life.
Even though money fights and money problems have been the leading cause of divorce for decades, people are still not talking about money with their honey before they tie the knot.
They say love is blind, but they also say love doesn’t last forever. Ask any couple who have been married for years and they would agree.
The triggering factor
To understand why a marriage breaks down, one can look at it from two angles – the process and the content.
“When we look at the process, we look at the communication dynamics, and also at how people perceive things, as well as, their past history,” explains Loy.
“On the content side, we look at the triggering factors. For example, the factors could be parenting, sex, finance, communication or even the in-laws.”
There are two ways to look at reasons for marital conflict or divorce – the process and the content.
Divorce is becoming less of a taboo in Malaysia. The stigma attached to divorce used to be the biggest barrier for couples to overcome, resulting in people sucking it in, and continuing to stick in an unhappy marriage.
However, before throwing in the towel, there are ways to prevent and also resolve marital conflicts before they explode in our faces. Laying a solid and strong foundation will make a lot of difference in how a couple deal with their conflicts.
“Couples with healthy relationship dynamics may be able to overcome some of the financial constraints. For example young couple who find themselves having an unplanned child, and financial issues come into play. It is stressful, but if they have a healthy relationship, they can probably still overcome it.
“However, for couples with dysfunctional relationship, who are already facing issues, life stresses affecting their finance could break their marriage,” Loy explains.
When expectations collide
Expectations are powerful things. In most cases, you will be disappointed or happy in life based on how well what is happening matches up with what you think should be happening. It is safe to say that all married couples enter into marriage hoping and believing they will have a happy ending.
However, things start to go south when these hopes and beliefs aren’t realised.
“It’s really important to understand one’s expectations.”
It’s not just about expecting a fairy tale marriage.
“We want to know our fiancé’s or partner’s expectations in terms of how money is spent, and priorities or areas of spending,” says Loy.
It’s really important to understand one’s expectations.
One’s expectation of how money should be spent, saved, or invested, depends on how one values certain things. What are his/her priorities in life?
“Some may have no problem when it comes to spending excessively on food. Maybe they grew up with parents who said food is important. While others prioritise on education, and avoid splurging on food,” he explains.
Expectation versus reality
What is important then, is for partners to become aware of each other’s expectations before saying “I do”. Without this awareness and understanding, each half of a couple will enter into a marriage without truly knowing the other half. When things do not go according to the plan in our head, marital conflicts will happen.
Defining each other’s expectations is essential to the success of any marriage or relationship because matching behavior and expectations can be important for cooperation and satisfaction.
“Understanding each other’s values can help couples to navigate their differences better. If both spouses share the same value and agree on the priorities of their spending, then there will be no issue.
“However, if one prioritises spending on their lifestyle, while the other half values education for the kids more, then they will most probably face some conflicts,” Loy emphasises.
The best way to tackle expectations from the beginning and ensure all areas are covered, is to read books on premarital counselling.
Understanding each other’s values can help couples to navigate their differences better.
“Some of these books come with checklists that you can go through with your other half to help you cover all bases.”
Aside from premarital books, Loy also encourages couples to take up premarital assessments with counsellors, where they will be asked about their financial expectations and values.”
Assess your relationship
Some people believe the key to a successful marriage is attending a premarital course. However, before that should even take place, couples should consider taking premarital assessment to assess their relationship.
A premarital course and a premarital assessment are very different.
“A premarital course is something that you attend, where someone is teaching you about this and that of marriage. It is not necessarily comprehensive and it may not cover all the important things.”
Loy explains that premarital assessments goes beyond that. The Prepare/Enrich assessment instrument is a customised couple assessment completed online that identifies a couple’s strength and growth areas.
The Prepare assessment has proven to predict the compatibility between premarital couples, with about 80% to 85% accuracy.
“The assessment could predict that you and your partner are a very high risk couple and will require a lot of counselling, or it could predict that the both of you are very compatible,” Loy says, adding that based on the assessment alone, you get a better picture on the success of your marriage.
The balancing act
Expectations and knowledge of finance largely depend on an individual’s background, education, and many other factors. This makes every relationship different, and there is no one-size-fits-all advice for every couple.
Loy finds some people, especially those who are older and have been working for a while, may not want to share their finances with their partner. However, for younger couples, straight out of college, usually they are more open.
He thinks this is probably because “they have nothing yet.”
Sometimes the lack of transparency in finances can be a cause of tension between couple but is not necessarily the case.
…the couple needs to be truly agreeable on the level of transparency in their finances.
“I am not saying every couple should be completely transparent with each other. I would say that the couple needs to be truly agreeable on the level of transparency in their finances,” he says.
There are couples who are not transparent to each other, and their relationship works. He gives an example of a couple he knows:
“They are both professionals, very successful, and they are not afraid. ‘I’m a millionaire, you’re a millionaire. We’re good. I don’t need your money, and you don’t need mine.’ So there isn’t transparency there but a mutual agreement on the level of transparency.”
So ultimately, it comes down to agreeing on what level of transparency both people are comfortable with.
Money is not a problem when there’s enough of it, but according to Loy, having enough of money is “a matter of perception”.
At the end of the day, what is most important is security. Financial safety is also a form of safety, like emotional and physical, and it is equally important.
“If an individual does not know what his/her future spouse has in terms of debt, it can be dangerous. If the other spouse has a RM30,000 debt, he/she can be liable for that debt too. Perhaps not personally liable, but whatever impacts your spouse, impacts you. So, you need to know.”
When a spouse is financially well and comfortable, the impact on the other spouse will be minimal, or positive. However, if one is financially struck down, ask yourself: “Will this affect my spouse?”
Money can definitely make or break a marriage. However, according to Loy, there is no hard and fast rule on how a couple can avoid all money conflicts in their marriage. Perhaps, for some couples it is about transparency, but others could just be incompatibility in their values.
One thing we can all take away from Loy is, a sense of security is sometimes all one needs. And ultimately, communication is the key to a successful relationship.
Successfully managing your money and marriage is a lifelong responsibility. Why not get a head-start by growing your financial pool through investments like fixed deposit, unit trust or private retirement funds?
Coming up next: How to eliminate power play in a marriage. Stay tuned!